Latin rhythms shake up national tour of 'In the Heights'

“In the Heights”

Presented by Famous Broadway Artists

Location Crouse Hinds Theater, Mulroy Civic Center | 421 Montgomery Street Syracuse

When Nov. 8-10

Tickets $30 to $79

Word about town: The Post Standard The Newshouse

GRR Review By Kelundra Smith

As soon as the spotlight illuminates a swift-moving break-dancer, dressed in camo on stage, it is obvious why Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography won "In the Heights" a Tony for Best Choreography. A blend of break dancing, salsa, cha-cha, and krumping, people don’t walk on stage, they dance, using very precise, Matrix-like movements.  Dance is constant, moving the plot along with dancers in the background of each scene.

The amalgamation of musical styles particularly with hip-hop and reggaeton in “96,000” was a pleasant surprise. When someone in the barrio wins “96G’s” in the lottery, the whole neighborhood erupts with gossip, dance and song. It is nice to see a Broadway show that portrays hip-hop music and dance styles in a way that is positive, and not rooted in stereotypes of misogyny and violence.

Conceived and composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, "In the Heights" is a story about family, community and love, highlighting the parts of a community that many people take for granted like the corner "bodega" grocery store and the hair salon. The show takes place over the course of three hot July days, when the people in the barrio are on the cusp of change.

Usnavi and his cousin Sonny are trying to ward off vandalism and financial hardships to keep their family’s bodega open. Nina just returned home from a challenging, freshman year at Stanford, and her parents are struggling to keep their taxi and limo business open, while helping her pay for college. Vanessa, whom Usnavi is in love with, has dreams of moving to Manhattan. And Daniela cannot afford the rent on her hair salon, forcing her to move to the Bronx. Everyone is trying to attain a version of the American dream, whether that means leaving the heights or not, and Miranda’s musical shows how resilient people are, no matter how powerless they may feel.

Though all of the characters, except Benny (who works for Nina’s parents) are Latino, a broad spectrum of Latino identity is represented in this diverse cast. People of different shapes, sizes and complexions find a safe haven for Latino identity in the Heights. Members of the community proudly display their Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican and Mexican flags.

There are strong performances all around, from the principals to the nearly acrobatic ensemble dancers. Abuela Claudia (Christina Aranda) was the audience favorite. The costumes in her retrospective solo about her native Cuba, “Paciencia y Fe,” were a stunning juxtaposition of 1940s Cuba set against the brick apartment buildings of Washington Heights.

Virginia Cavaliere’s beautiful, sweet voice is perfect in portraying Nina, as she captures the identity changes that “the one who made it out of the barrio” goes through in every note. Another powerhouse voice in the company is Tauren Hagans, who played Daniela, infusing humor in the catchy tunes “No Me Diga” and “Carnaval del Barrio.”

The performances are enhanced by Anna Louizos’s realistic set design in contrast with Howell Binkley’s fantastical, dance club-like lighting design. The lights are like dancing rainbows, moving to the beat of the music, especially in “The Club/Fireworks” with projections of fireworks bursting on the apartment buildings.

Louizos, who designed "Avenue Q" in London, achieves once again in re-creating New York.  Anyone who has been to Washington Heights will recognize the barrio, from the subway station at 181st Street to the colorful awnings on the bodegas. There are even fire hydrants on the sidewalk and graffiti on the security gates over the bodega doors. The stage space was small for the dance-heavy nature of the show, but the actors managed well.

The libretto was written by Pulitzer Prize finalist Quiara Alegria Hudes, with direction by Thomas Kail, and musical direction by Alex Lacamore.

There are a lot of inside jokes about the Latino community in the show, but the audience is never left out. Often shows with minorities as the main characters are pigeon-holed as being race-specific stories, but the compassion, humor and dignity that the cast brings to the Heights make the characters’ dreams relatable to the entire audience.